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Canned Vegetables and Fruit
Can It Be Kosher?

By: Rabbi Tzvi Rosen

 

How often have we heard the question, "What's the problem with plain canned vegetables? It's only vegetables, water and salt in a can!" True. It's also true that today you can buy salt with a hechsher, water with a hechsher even cans with a hechsher! But can a kosher consumer buy canned corn off the shelf or should the kosher consumer beware?

Nowadays canning is the method most often turned to when a low cost, high quality, long shelf life product is desired. Canned products run the gamut from milchig to fleishig, from evaporated milk to canned meats, and plenty of products in between. Today there are over 600 canneries in North America.

Let us walk through these various processes of canning and target the kashrus concerns of vegetable canning.

Cleaning the Crop

One of the golden rules of successful canning is that a good, clean, healthy vegetable cans better, tastes better, preserves better and sells better. Therefore, vegetables undergo rigorous inspection, cleaning, testing and more cleaning and checking to assure that the prepared vegetable is a quality one.

Skins of root vegetables are steamed, peeled and scrubbed. The vegetable then undergoes dicing, slicing, and blanching according to specifications.

Filled to the Rim

At this stage the vegetables are ready for canning. To make the finished product, various systems begin to interact. Empty cans are pre-washed and conveyed to fill stations where vegetables and hot brine, syrups or sauces fill the cans. Simple brine consists of water and salt. Sweetened vegetables are usually sweetened with a blend of water, corn syrup and liquid sugar. Other vegetables are flavored with sauces. Sauces are combination of corn syrups, tomato sauces, spice blends, flavors, vinegar and oil. As usual sauces need careful kosher ingredient monitoring. Some sauces are flavored with meat and or chicken flavors, others with cheese.

Vegetables Under Pressure

Now the cans are ready to be sealed. Empty cans are filled and capped and are sent to the retorts. A retort is a large pressure cooker that cooks the vegetables for a controlled length of time and pressure to create a bacteria free environment in the can so that any microorganisms that may cause spoilage will be killed.

Retorts, like any other piece of machinery, varies from the simple to the sophisticated.

The old standard basket retort looks like a large horizontal torpedo that opens up to accept large baskets of cans in its cavity.

A Stearolamatic Continuous Cooker has the cans travel along a timed chain belt, cooking the cans as they move along the track.

A Hydrostatic Retort is a six story building of rotating shelves that can cook over 25,000 cans at one time when filled to capacity. Furthermore, today's hydrostatic cookers can have 2 separate shelving systems moving at different speeds. It is not unusual to have 2 types of vegetables retorted at the same time in a Hydrostatic cooker. Quite a difference to the couple of hundred cans cooked in a basket retort.

Diversifying the Pack

Canning plants have to contend with the fickle feelings of mother nature. Simply put, if it is rainy, you cannot can what can't be harvested. Similarly, during a non-growth season, you cannot can what does not grow. What's a canning plant to do?

Some plants will can many different varieties of vegetables to minimize down time. For example, a facility will can yams from August through December and potatoes from May through July. However, it doesn't take much to see that even with 2 varieties there are still many dormant months to address. Some plants maintain an abbreviated production year and utilize the off-season for maintenance and repair. Other companies add a whole new dimension to their canning venue . . . dry pack.

Canning dry pack beans is prudent and convenient because the product is not governed by season or weather. Dry pack can have a production life of its own and be packed for long periods of time or be used as a fill in on rainy days during a harvest season. Dry beans are easily re-hydrated. After soaking for eight hours they are then treated as a fresh vegetable.

Now come the Kashrus concerns:

  • Amongst the many varieties of canned dry pack beans are the American favorite pork and beans, and bacon and beans. The concern is not for the produc elf, of course no Kosher certifying agency will certify pork and beans, but the problem is with the retort which has now gone from the status of a Kosher retort to the status of a non-Kosher retort. It is similar to cooking Kosher ingredients on a non-Kosher stove.

  • Even if the facility would maintain separate processing systems for Kosher and non-Kosher production, the condensate from steam used to heat the non-Kosher products is often returned to a common boiler and then used to cook the otherwise Kosher items. Depending on the system, hot water used to cook non-Kosher products can also be recycled and used to cook the otherwise Kosher items.

  • Also, if there is kosher and non-kosher brine in the same plant, special Hashgacha is required to ensure that they are not cooked on the same equipment and not using the steam of the non-kosher brine to boil the kosher brine.

Bearing these facts in mind, in an unprecedented kashrus inter-agency policy decision, all varieties of canned vegetables are now approved for use by all the major kosher certification agencies only when bearing reliable kosher certification. Of course if the determination can be made that a canned vegetable variety has been produced in an all kosher plant, the canned vegetable would be approved without a hechsher. However this determination is often hard to make. The same rule of thumb holds true to canned tomato products which are often canned together with clam juice or meat and cheese flavored pizza sauces.

Administering a Hashgacha for a cannery raises concerns beyond the actual Kosher status of the equipment used.

Some vegetables, such as potatoes, are subject to the rules of Bishul Akum, the requirement that they be cooked with the assistance of a Jewish person. In such a situation, the Mashgiach must light the boiler or otherwise participate in the cooking of the product for it to be considered Kosher. Sephardim have additional concerns regarding Bishul Akum, and a Rav should be consulted to determine which products are acceptable for their Kehilla. [It is interesting to note a recent discussion amongst contemporary Halachic authorities as to whether steam is considered Meushan (smoking) as regards Bishul Akum in canned foods, especially since it is the can that is steamed and not the food itself. See Mesorah I:95.]

A further concern, common to both fresh and processed vegetables, stems from insect infestation. Vegetables prone to this problem, such a Brussels sprouts and cabbage, are not exempt by dint of the canning process.

It is our hope that this article will enhance each kosher consumer's understanding of this fascinating industry and will help give a renewed appreciation of the ongoing research that kosher certification agencies do on behalf of the kosher consumer.

Canned Fruit

As a general rule, canned fruit do not share the same concerns as canned vegetables.

Usually canned fruit is packed on equipment used exclusively for canning fruit. Canned fruits are pasteurized in a fruit pasteurizer just as vegetables are cooked in a retort.

Fruits are either canned in water, syrup or fruit juice. It is possible to sweeten fruits with white grape juice which is an excellent alternative to apple juice, so fruit sweetened in juice should be purchased with a reliable kosher certification. Dietetic canned fruit is often sweetened with fruit juice. This is not the case with pineapple which is often canned in its own juice or canned with pineapple juice. White grape juice is not used as an alternative to pineapple juice.

There is no concern with the kailim because of the concept of Batal BeShaish concerning wine.

Often canned cherries are colored with red color to give the cherry a robust red appearance. When the ingredients state that an FD&C red is used to color the cherry, the color used is synthetic and would be acceptable. If the ingredients list natural red or natural color, the fruit must bear an acceptable kosher certification because carmine, a natural red color could be used to color the cherry. Carmine is a red colorant which is obtained from the dried bodies of the coccus cacti insect, a beetle. It gives off a brilliant red color and is very color stable.

Once again, there is no concern with the kailim since the carmine is only adding color and not an integral part of the formula.

Furthermore, canned fruits that are products of Israel should be purchased with reliable kosher certification to ensure proper tithing of trumos and maasros. During years that shmitta laws apply, reliable kosher certification is necessary to make sure one is not wrongfully purchasing shmitta produce.

In conclusion, canned fruits can be purchased without kosher certification if the following conditions are met:

  1. The fruits are packed in water, light or heavy syrup and do not have fruit juice listed as an ingredient;
  2. They are not colored with natural colors; and
  3. The fruits are not products of Israel.

Rabbi Tzvi Rosen is Star-K Kashrus Administrator

Questions or comments about this article?  Send to rabbirosen@star-k.org

 

HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Shlit"a
Rosh Beth Din

HaRav Yona Reiss, Shlit"a
Av Beth Din

 

Rabbi Sholem Fishbane
Kashruth Administrator

Rabbi Levi Mostofsky
Executive Director

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